More than 11,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands more injured in the devastating earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria on Monday.
Thousands of buildings have collapsed in the two countries and aid agencies are warning of “catastrophic” consequences in northwestern Syria, where millions of vulnerable and displaced people already depended on humanitarian aid.
Mass rescue efforts are underway with the global community assisting in search and recovery operations. Meanwhile, agencies have warned that the death toll from the disaster could rise significantly.
Here’s what we know about the earthquake and why it was so deadly.
One of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the region in a century shook residents awake at around 4am in the early hours of Monday morning. The earthquake occurred 14 miles east of Nurdagi, in Turkey’s Gaziantep province, at a depth of 14.9 miles (24.1 kilometers), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) said.
A series of aftershocks reverberated through the region in the hours following the initial incident. A magnitude 6.7 aftershock followed 11 minutes after the first quake, but the largest quake, which measured 7.5, struck about nine hours later at 1:24 p.m., according to the USGS.
That 7.5-magnitude aftershock, which struck about 95 kilometers (59 miles) north of the first quake, is the strongest of more than 100 aftershocks recorded so far.
Rescue workers are now racing against time and the elements to pull survivors from the rubble on both sides of the border. More than 5,700 buildings have collapsed, according to Turkey’s disaster agency.
Monday’s earthquake was also one of the strongest Turkey has experienced in the last century – a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the east of the country in 1939, resulting in more than 30,000 deaths, according to the USGS.
A number of factors contributed to making this earthquake so deadly. One is the time of day when it happened. With the earthquake hitting early in the morning, many people were in their beds when it happened and are now trapped under the rubble of their homes.
In addition, with a cold and wet weather system sweeping through the region, poor conditions have made reaching affected areas more difficult, and rescue and recovery efforts on both sides of the border significantly more challenging once teams have arrived.
Temperatures are already bitterly low, but the expectation was that Wednesday would drop several degrees below zero. A low pressure area is currently hanging over Turkey and Syria. As that continues, it will bring down “significantly colder air” from central Turkey, according to DailyExpertNews’s senior meteorologist Britley Ritz.
It would be -4 degrees Celsius (24.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Gaziantep and -2 degrees in Aleppo on Wednesday morning. On Thursday, the forecast drops further to -6 degrees and -4 degrees respectively.
With scattered showers and snow in the region continuing, the elements are endangering the lives of those trapped under the rubble — who have been without food and water for days — from hypothermia. Meanwhile, officials have asked residents to evacuate buildings for their own safety amid concerns about more aftershocks.
In photos: Deadly earthquake hits Turkey and Syria
With so much damage in both countries, many are beginning to question the role local building infrastructure may have played in the tragedy.
“What stands out the most is the type of collapse — what we call the pancake collapse — the type of collapse that we engineers don’t like to see,” said Mustafa Erdik, a professor of earthquake engineering at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. . “With collapses like this, it is difficult – as you can see – and very tragic to save lives. It makes the operation of the search and rescue teams very difficult.”
Erdik told DailyExpertNews that the images of widespread destruction and debris indicate “that there are very variable qualities of design and construction.” He says the type of structural failures after an earthquake are usually partial collapses. “Total collapse is something you always try to avoid, both in codes and in the actual design,” he added.
USGS structural engineer Kishor Jaiswal told DailyExpertNews on Tuesday that Turkey has experienced significant earthquakes in the past, including a 1999 quake that struck southwestern Turkey and killed more than 14,000 people. Therefore, he said, many parts of Turkey have regional building codes to ensure construction projects can withstand events like this.
Video shows trapped child comfort sibling under rubble
But not all buildings are built to modern Turkish seismic standards, Jaiswal said. Flaws in design and construction, especially in older buildings, meant that many buildings could not withstand the violent shocks.
“If you don’t design these structures for the seismic intensity they might encounter during their design life, these structures may not perform well,” said Jaiswal.
Erdik also said he believed many of the buildings that collapsed were likely “built before 1999 or… with older codes.” He added that there would also have been instances where some buildings did not comply with the code.
“The codes are very modern in Turkey, very similar to the US codes, but again, the compliance of the codes is an issue that we have tried to address with legal and administrative procedures.” he explained. “We have permits from municipalities and controls for the design, controls for construction. But again, there are things that are missing.”
Despite mounting challenges, a structural engineer and humanitarian coordinator urged rescuers not to give up hope as survivors could be found for up to “weeks” after the massive earthquake that hit the region. Kit Miyamoto, president of the non-profit Miyamoto Global Disaster Relief, also praised the community in Turkey that came together and “did their part” after the earthquake hit.
“The community, the citizens, they are really the first line of defense,” he told DailyExpertNews on Wednesday. “They dug up family, friends, neighbors.”
But other experts warn that the post-earthquake window for search and rescue is quickly closing. Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London, said: “Usually few survivors are withdrawn after 72 hours – but any life saved is essential and some people are freed after many days.”
He added: “Time is always the enemy, as seen in Turkey and Syria. People die due to immediate medical needs, such as bleeding to death or succumbing to bruises; by aftershocks that collapse precarious structures with people underneath; and due to the weather dropping below freezing at night and being cold during the day, people are dying of hypothermia. Many die from lack of food and water waiting for rescue.”
Earthquakes occur on every continent in the world – from the highest peaks in the Himalayan range, to the lowest valleys, such as the Dead Sea, to the bitterly cold regions of Antarctica. However, the distribution of these earthquakes is not random.
The USGS describes an earthquake as “the shaking of the ground caused by a sudden slip on a fault. Stresses in the Earth’s outer layer push the sides of the fault together. Stress builds and the rocks suddenly slip, causing energy is released in waves that travel through the earth’s crust and cause the shaking we feel during an earthquake.
Earthquakes are measured using seismographs, which track the seismic waves that travel through the earth after an earthquake.
Many will recognize the term “Richter Scale,” which scientists used for years and years, but today they generally follow the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (MMI), which is a more accurate measure of an earthquake’s size, according to the USGS.
The strength of an earthquake is known as magnitude. The intensity of the shaking can vary depending on local geography and topography and the depth of the earthquake. On the magnitude scale, every single integer increase translates to 32 times more energy.
On this occasion, tremors from the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in southern Turkey were felt as far away as Israel and Lebanon, hundreds of miles away.
Turkey is no stranger to strong earthquakes as it lies along the boundaries of tectonic plates. Seven quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher have hit the country in the past 25 years, but Monday’s was one of the most powerful.
It is also the world’s strongest quake since a 2021 magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck a region near the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic, though that incident’s remote location caused little damage.
DailyExpertNews’s meteorologist and severe weather expert Chad Myers said, “we always talk about the epicenter, but in this case we have to talk about the epiline.”
Two massive tectonic plates — the Arabian and the Eurasian — meet beneath Turkey’s southeastern provinces. Along this fault line, “about 100 miles from one side to the other, the earth slipped,” Myers continued.
Seismologists refer to this event as a “strike slip” — “where the plates hit each other and they suddenly slide sideways,” Myers said.
This is in contrast to the Ring of Fire, which runs along the west coast of the United States. In this zone, earthquakes and tsunamis are often caused by subduction – where one plate slides under the other.
But in a “strike slip” the plates move horizontally instead of vertically. “That’s important because the buildings don’t want to go back and forth. And then the secondary waves start going back and forth as well,” Myers added.
Due to the nature of this seismic event, aftershocks can last for “weeks and months,” according to DailyExpertNews meteorologist Karen Maginnis.
Compared to other major earthquakes around the world, Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami — which left more than 22,000 people dead or missing — registered a magnitude of 9.1.
That incident caused widespread devastation after walls of water engulfed entire cities, dragged homes onto highways, and sparked the nation’s worst-ever nuclear disaster.
A year earlier, in 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti was estimated to have killed between 220,000 and 300,000. Another 300,000 people were injured and millions displaced.
In 2004, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 9.1 struck the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggering a tsunami that left 227,898 people dead or reported missing and presumed dead.
According to the USGS, the strongest earthquake ever recorded was in Chile with a magnitude of 9.5 on the Richter scale in 1960.